Agile & Digital / Virtual Teams

The rise of multiple, cross-silo virtual teams

How many teams are you part of at work? Professionals are now members of four different teams on average, according to our benchmarking survey of over 4,000 employees in Europe, US, Asia and the Middle East.  Four teams with say 3-5 key goals each means 12-20 key initiatives to juggle and try to stay on top of.

These multiple teams are also now more likely to be horizontal, cross-silo and virtual teams.  In digitally mature companies, more than 70% of executives say their companies are organized around cross-functional teams (vs. only 28% of companies at the start of their digital journey) according to a 2017 report from MIT and Deloitte Digital.

These new trends have a serious impact on people’s sense of clarity in terms of what their key goals are, what to prioritize and how to handle the inevitable ambiguity and conflict.

The good news is that studies have shown that working on multiple teams can have many benefits, such as[i]:

  • facilitating the flow of knowledge and best practices between teams
  • building boundary spanning networks
  • encouraging individuals and teams to seek out more efficient work practices
  • improving workers’ performance

But only up to a point.  Studies have found that the increase in productivity plateaus and then turns negative as the number of team memberships’ increases and the clarity issues above kick in.  As well as increased ambiguity, over-cooperation is likely to become a problem.

There doesn’t seem to be any universal magic number of teams to be part of – the performance peak depends on factors such as the organizational incentive systems, geographic dispersion of the various teams, individual time related preferences and existing networks of relationships. The variety as well as number of teams can also have an impact – with a large variety increasing learning (again up to a point), but decreasing productivity.

What is clear is that unless we’re careful, psychologists warn us that being a part of a number of teams “imposes competing demands on members’ attention and commitment, which can lead to information overload, distress, and less than optimal performance at the individual, team, and organizational levels[ii].”

To mitigate this, it is imperative that we take ownership of our roles and goals within each team.  If we are on multiple teams, we are the only ones who have the full perspective of everything we have going on.  Therefore, it’s up to us to clarify what our priorities should be, to highlight to others if certain goals from different teams clash and to be comfortable with a degree of ambiguity.

Once the jurisdiction of senior managers and above, this means that managing multiple stakeholders is now a lot more common further down the organization.  But are we giving people the skills they need to perform this complex task?

Check out an interactive graphic of our learning paths and training module contents – including multiple team management.

[i] van de Brake, H. J., Walter, F., Rink, F., Essens, P., & van der Vegt, G. (2016) Multiple Team Membership and Individual Performance in Knowledge-Intensive Work. Academy of Management Proceedings, 1, p. 10488.

[ii] Maynard, M. T., Mathieu, J. E., Rapp, T. L., & Gilson, L. L. (2012) Something(s) old and something(s) new: Modeling drivers of global virtual team effectiveness. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33: 342-365.

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